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Of Gods and Men (2010)

Xavier Beauvois

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#141 Overstreet

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 02:32 PM

In conclusion: you might think of the films as equal but different (which, btw, is not at all some kind of tangential affirmation of complementarianism or, for that matter, segregation . . . just so we're clear).


Well, maybe. "Equal" is a difficult word. Is a flourishing backyard garden "equal to" Yellowstone? They are both as good as they can be. But their territories, forms, and purposes are very, very different. One is not better than the other, but the word "equal" complicates matters.

Edit 2: On the whole Evangelical Christian thing: I agree that people simply don't know about it. Other issues (that it's not uplifting enough, etc.) may be true, but aren't even that relevant if people haven't heard of it. If I polled friends from my Christian college group, I'd be surprised if more than one or two of them have even heard about it, not to mention actually seen it.


And yet, if you were to send two invitations to a whole congregation, one describing a film about policemen who are called to be heroes on a daily basis, and who must also balance their day-job with the challenges of parenting their beautiful children... the other describing Of Gods and Men... don't you have a guess as to which screening would fill up and which would be poorly attended? Substitute that first invitation with a movie about a gladiator, or an army, or a football team. Same deal.

#142 Attica

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 03:11 PM


Edit 2: On the whole Evangelical Christian thing: I agree that people simply don't know about it. Other issues (that it's not uplifting enough, etc.) may be true, but aren't even that relevant if people haven't heard of it. If I polled friends from my Christian college group, I'd be surprised if more than one or two of them have even heard about it, not to mention actually seen it.


And yet, if you were to send two invitations to a whole congregation, one describing a film about policemen who are called to be heroes on a daily basis, and who must also balance their day-job with the challenges of parenting their beautiful children... the other describing Of Gods and Men... don't you have a guess as to which screening would fill up and which would be poorly attended? Substitute that first invitation with a movie about a gladiator, or an army, or a football team. Same deal.



Sure. Which fits with what I was just thinking. A lot of Evangelicals simply haven't heard about OF GODS AND MEN, when, some of these other films are heavily marketed to them. The question then is, why haven't they heard about OF GODS AND MEN, and why hasn't it being marketed to them more. Of course part of the answer is that it's a foreign film, but I'd also venture to guess that it hasn't been marketed to them, and they don't know about it, because it's understood that this isn't a film that they are as likely to be interested in. Yet also, because, seeing as by and large a lot of them aren't as interested in this type of film, they therefore don't know about it as knowledge of it hasn't spread by word of mouth, or by such things as viewing sites like Artsandfaith where people are interested in these types of film.

I guess to make it simpler.... maybe because they aren't interested in this type of film they aren't walking in circles where it would be exposed to them, and they aren't walking in these circles because art like this isn't "uplifting", or "victorious" enough for their tastes.

Edited by Attica, 28 February 2012 - 07:36 PM.


#143 SDG

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 03:16 PM

FWIW, Jeff, my point in citing Ebert is that the film allows us to draw our own conclusions about the meaning and significance of the monks' choice. It doesn't insist that they are heroes. Some critics, including some who admire the film more than Ebert, think the monks are nutty. So the meaning of the film is genuinely open to interpretation.

I can understand your enthusiasm for works of art that encourages you to grow aesthetically. I feel the same way, and that's not the level on which I love this film.

But in the first place, are you saying that those are the only works that elicit your enthusiasm? That once you are big enough to fully embrace a work, it's no longer exciting?

Beyond that, art, like man, is larger than aesthetics. You don't feel the thrill of being challenged to grow, to be more than you are, watching this film? Really?

I know, I know, that pertains to what it's about. But in the first place, why is that less important? Do you really feel that the film is only telling you what you already knew? It hasn't enlarged your view of the world? If so, you are either a greater soul than I knew, or perhaps there is more to the film. :)

I can understand the notion that, all things being equal, a work that challenges one aesthetically is preferable to a comparable work that is less challenging. But there's the rub: all things being equal; a comparable work. Please make a list of films that are comparable or roughly equivalent to this one in subject and theme. The truly comparable film will reveal the beauty of the Christian ideal, in its theological and liturgical specificity, with emphasis on community, spirituality and service. It will be a short list.

Edited by SDG, 28 February 2012 - 03:18 PM.


#144 M. Leary

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 03:32 PM

Which is that one of my personal definitions of great film is that the film's style/structure mirrors its content.


I would resist this, as good cinema also takes content that has become conventional and passes it through unexpected forms. The connection between form and content is far more vital and compelling than that offered by rote consistency. If form and content are to be married, then they are to be married like the man and woman in Certified Copy.

But I feel as if there are a few false or forced dichotomies floating around above that have muddied the waters. I am perfectly happy with liking something as lo-fi as Of Gods and Men and something as high concept in form and execution as Certified Copy without offering any theoretical justification as to why both films are worthy of our time. They each belong to their own networks of theory and history that are intriguing to explore. There are cases in which juxtaposition (Tree of Life vs. Of Gods And Men) can be misleading if the equation isn't balanced properly.

#145 SDG

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 03:44 PM

FWIW, among the aesthetic pleasures that Of Gods and Men gives me that, say, The Tree of Life does not is the pleasure of feeling that every note is right; that every cadence is appropriately (but naturally and persuasively) brought to resolution; that all the parts tell. Every shot, line, exchange, scene, plot point and rise and fall of action cogently advances the whole, creating a harmonious and symmetrical whole. Nothing jumps out as unsatisfying, unconvincing, unrevealing, unbalanced. I'm not distracted by elements that seem not to belong or that trivially don't make sense, or that don't speak to me at all, or that can plausibly be critiqued as risible. I certainly appreciate a complex work of art challenging me with elements that seem dissonant at first but which suggest a higher and more complex inner unity. But after three viewings I'm still far from convinced that the harsher critics of The Tree of Life don't have some very cogent points.

#146 Overstreet

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 03:44 PM

FWIW, Jeff, my point in citing Ebert is that the film allows us to draw our own conclusions about the meaning and significance of the monks' choice. It doesn't insist that they are heroes. Some critics, including some who admire the film more than Ebert, think the monks are nutty. So the meaning of the film is genuinely open to interpretation.

I can understand your enthusiasm for works of art that encourages you to grow aesthetically. I feel the same way, and that's not the level on which I love this film.

But in the first place, are you saying that those are the only works that elicit your enthusiasm? That once you are big enough to fully embrace a work, it's no longer exciting?


Well, I don't know that I'd ever say I've "fully embraced" a work. But if I do not continue to feel some sense of discovery with a film several viewings in, I'm not likely to return to it often (except to share it). Just the places I want to go on vacation are places I want to continue to explore.

This film gives me a challenging story of sacrifice. I'm inspired by that, yes. It calls me to reexamine my life and priorities. But its form does not call me into an experience that sharpens, tunes, and transforms my attention and my sense. I wouldn't say it does much to inspire how I see, or to become more aware of the mysterious relationships between things. When I get a sense that a film is inviting me to grow in my sensory apprehension of things, beyond just changing what I think or the decisions I make, I feel I'm having an experience of great art. A missionary could come and tell a story in church that would inspire me in the way that Of Gods and Men does (although yes, Of Gods and Men does is handsomely filmed and acted). But something like Ordet inspires me in many other ways as well. Everything in the shot seems to be humming with significance... speaking, if you will, something into the scene. What is in light and what is in shadow, such decisions are pregnant with meaning htere. I'm much more awake when I sense that a film is working that way.

Beyond that, art, like man, is larger than aesthetics. You don't feel the thrill of being challenged to grow, to be more than you are, watching this film? Really?


I never said I didn't. But I am challenged to grow in one particular way -- to make decisions to be humble and to serve -- by what is happening in the story, not so much by how that story is being told.

I might go to a Protestant church service, like those I've enjoyed my whole life, and be inspired by a few good songs and a spirited sermon. But I am increasingly aware of all that I am missing there. I want a greater sense of mystery that I feel powerfully invited to experience in the quiet hush of a cathedral, in the scent of incense, in particular sounds, in images and choreography. Does that mean the Protestant service wasn't challenging me to grow? Of course not. But it was only appealing to me in a particular way, and not in other ways.

I know, I know, that pertains to what it's about. But in the first place, why is that less important?


Not less important. But it is only part of the picture. Other parts of the picture I hope to find engaging are... well... just not so much.

Do you really feel that the film is only telling you what you already knew? It hasn't enlarged your view of the world?


This is in no way a brag, but I can't say the film introduced any new ideas to me at all. It just portrays them in a way that does, yes, move me. The film's culminating call of compassion, forgiveness, and sacrifice are all of crucial importance to me. (All of what I've perceived the film to convey thematically is, in fact, central to the thematic weave of my own storytelling. I may not be a great storyteller yet, but I can't point to anything in Of Gods and Men that doesn't echo things I've been taught my whole life in the church. And the ideas conveyed in the closing scene and letter were great to hear, because they gave me a grand illustration of ideas about heroes, saints, sacrifice, and compassion that are the backbone of the lectures about storytelling that I share. Maybe on my next viewing, I'll discover something I've never thought about before. I'd welcome that.)

The film has, though, enlarged my experience in that it has invited me to share in the experiences' of these men. So it has reinforced and increased my convictions about these things, sure.

Please make a list of films that are comparable or roughly equivalent to this one in subject and theme.



I could name a few, sure. But that wouldn't address what we're talking about. There is much more to art than subject and theme. I have no argument that Of Gods and Men is, in subject and theme, about as profound as it gets. But I can imagine ways in which the story might have been told that would have been, potentially, a more transcendent experience... for me, anyway.

Edited by Overstreet, 28 February 2012 - 03:48 PM.


#147 SDG

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 03:46 PM

But I feel as if there are a few false or forced dichotomies floating around above that have muddied the waters. I am perfectly happy with liking something as lo-fi as Of Gods and Men and something as high concept in form and execution as Certified Copy without offering any theoretical justification as to why both films are worthy of our time. They each belong to their own networks of theory and history that are intriguing to explore. There are cases in which juxtaposition (Tree of Life vs. Of Gods And Men) can be misleading if the equation isn't balanced properly.

Thanks, M. This seems relevant, but phrased carefully enough that I think all parties to the discussion will agree in principle. :)

#148 Overstreet

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 03:54 PM

But I feel as if there are a few false or forced dichotomies floating around above that have muddied the waters. I am perfectly happy with liking something as lo-fi as Of Gods and Men and something as high concept in form and execution as Certified Copy without offering any theoretical justification as to why both films are worthy of our time. They each belong to their own networks of theory and history that are intriguing to explore. There are cases in which juxtaposition (Tree of Life vs. Of Gods And Men) can be misleading if the equation isn't balanced properly.

Thanks, M. This seems relevant, but phrased carefully enough that I think all parties to the discussion will agree in principle. :)


Agreed.

That's why I don't want to even participate in a discussion about whether Of Gods and Men is better than The Tree of Life. But if we're talking about the "how it is about it" part of artmaking, I find the method of one film more fully inspiring and satisfying and inviting for subsequent experiences than the other. (Again, that's a personal thing, and not something I expect others to share.) I could write books on both the "what it is about" and the "how it is about it" aspect of the films of Tarkovsky or Kieslowski. I would be happy to write a book on "what Of Gods and Men is about," with maybe a chapter or two on "how it is about it."

#149 SDG

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 03:59 PM

This is in no way a brag, but I can't say the film introduced any new ideas to me at all.

You didn't find the moral territory Christian had to negotiate dealing with Ali Fayattia to be at all challenging? The idea of Muslim terrorists protecting a Christian monastery wasn't a new thought to you?

How about a French monk invoking God as Allah? Or the knottiest example, a Christian considering Algeria and Islam as a body and a soul?

Please make a list of films that are comparable or roughly equivalent to this one in subject and theme.

I could name a few, sure. But that wouldn't address what we're talking about. There is much more to art than subject and theme.

I agree on the latter point. But I am talking about subject and theme to a significant degree. And in any case I would still be interested in your list.

#150 Attica

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:11 PM

This is in no way a brag, but I can't say the film introduced any new ideas to me at all. It just portrays them in a way that does, yes, move me. The film's culminating call of compassion, forgiveness, and sacrifice are all of crucial importance to me. (All of what I've perceived the film to convey thematically is, in fact, central to the thematic weave of my own storytelling. I may not be a great storyteller yet, but I can't point to anything in Of Gods and Men that doesn't echo things I've been taught my whole life in the church. And the ideas conveyed in the closing scene and letter were great to hear, because they gave me a grand illustration of ideas about heroes, saints, sacrifice, and compassion that are the backbone of the lectures about storytelling that I share. Maybe on my next viewing, I'll discover something I've never thought about before. I'd welcome that.)

The film has, though, enlarged my experience in that it has invited me to share in the experiences' of these men. So it has reinforced and increased my convictions about these things, sure.



In saying the following I'm in no way indicting you.... so please don't take it that way.

My love for the film also goes beyond it's influences on my own journey. Yes some of the themes in the film deal with stuff I already knew, and sure the film has reinforced and increased my convictions, but I'm also very interested in the idea of the film influencing others who don't have as strong of an upbringing in, or understanding of some of these concepts. I'm excited with the idea that this is a well made film, dealing with Christianity (or at least a particular understanding of Christianity), that is also moving outside of the normal "Christian circles" (I'm cutting a wide swath here - and not touching on the Evangelical question mentioned above), and is impacting, influencing, and provoking thought in folks outside of these circles. At least I can only assume that it is.

It's also pleasing to think that they will be interacting with a film which looks favourably upon Christians, but also doesn't try to mask the understanding that we are very real people with very real fears, ambiguities, and folly.

Surely Holy Spirit is working through this film, to speak to people.

Edited by Attica, 28 February 2012 - 04:15 PM.


#151 SDG

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:14 PM

Attica, I'm sure Jeff agrees with the thrust of your comments, which is why he warmly recommended the film in his Comment piece, and why he says he recommends it to everyone. Let's not make the divergence bigger than it is. :)

Edited by SDG, 28 February 2012 - 04:16 PM.


#152 Attica

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:17 PM

Attica, I'm sure Jeff agrees with the thrust of your comments, which is why he warmly recommended the film in his Touchstone piece, and why he says he recommends it to everyone. Let's not make the divergence bigger than it is. :)


Sorry if it looked like I meant to make the divergence bigger than it was. I wasn't .... and that's why I put in the bit about not trying to indict him. I was using Jeff's comments as a stepping stone to put out some thoughts, nothing more. ::blush::

Edited by Attica, 28 February 2012 - 04:19 PM.


#153 Overstreet

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:21 PM

Yes, this is definitely not a yea-sayer versus a nay-sayer. It is a case of just how much yea-ness we're experiencing. :)

This is in no way a brag, but I can't say the film introduced any new ideas to me at all.

You didn't find the moral territory Christian had to negotiate dealing with Ali Fayattia to be at all challenging? The idea of Muslim terrorists protecting a Christian monastery wasn't a new thought to you?


Well, it was an interesting plot point, and an interesting matter of strategy. It reminded me of one of my favorite passages of Scripture, the one in which we're told that in this messy world, the weeds exist right among the good growth, and that if we violently uproot the weeds, we're bound to damage the good growth as well.

So I'm not sure what you mean "Was it a new thought?" Was it a story I hadn't heard before? Sure. Does it illustrate or open up things I haven't thought about before? Hmm. I'm not sure that it does. But perhaps I'm missing something.

#154 M. Leary

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:23 PM

That's why I don't want to even participate in a discussion about whether Of Gods and Men is better than The Tree of Life. But if we're talking about the "how it is about it" part of artmaking, I find the method of one film more fully inspiring and satisfying and inviting for subsequent experiences than the other. (Again, that's a personal thing, and not something I expect others to share.) I could write books on both the "what it is about" and the "how it is about it" aspect of the films of Tarkovsky or Kieslowski. I would be happy to write a book on "what Of Gods and Men is about," with maybe a chapter or two on "how it is about it."


I am growing increasingly dissatisfied with the "what it is about"/"how it is about it" pattern of thinking through a film. Too much residue from one builds up in the other. Are there better basic questions? Or are we stuck with these?

But I did above make the suggestion that Of Gods and Men belongs to a different tradition of filmmaking than we think. There is a lot of Varda in the film, for example, that creates a different perspective on the material than a simplisitic Christian moral translation. In addition, I find it fascinating that I respond to the film far differently than its director, who does not share or understand my (or the monks) Christological convictions - but rather embraces the ritual behavior of the community as a form of existential deliverance from the whole shock of the Algerian crisis. The Last Supper scene is such a treasure because though it is rooted (and perceived by me) in the very life of Jesus and the disciples, it also appeals to such a post-Christian context as France that the film enjoyed unexpected success there. All this is to say, there is more artistry on the "how it is about it" side of the question than meets the eye.

#155 SDG

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:26 PM

Excellent thoughts, Mike. (I think you meant "what it is about" at the end. Edit: or no, maybe you didn't. Reading it the other way around now.)

So I'm not sure what you mean "Was it a new thought?" Was it a story I hadn't heard before? Sure. Does it illustrate or open up things I haven't thought about before? Hmm. I'm not sure that it does. But perhaps I'm missing something.

What about the other questions?

Edited by SDG, 28 February 2012 - 04:29 PM.


#156 Nathaniel

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:29 PM

Just to add my two cents…

I think Jeffrey has done a fine job of clarifying his personal taste--he's a poetry guy and not a prose guy. Fine. Let him define and defend what is "poetic" in cinema!

But I think Morefield's original point is still relevant, and in the spirit of courteous discussion I would concur that there is perhaps a faint whiff of condescension in the references to "Christian circles" and "mainstream evangelicals."

It's all too easy for a movie reviewer to stake out a position of superiority over his/her audience, chastising them for not being as well informed or discriminating as himself/herself. A subtle "guilt trip" rhetoric tends to creep in if one is not vigilant. Now, I don't think there was anything pointedly offensive in Jeff's observation that Of Gods and Men has "gone almost unnoticed in Christian circles," but it wasn't a necessary observation, either. While I suspect it's more or less true (indeed, it smacks of "truthiness"), it is nevertheless unsubstantiated in the article, and it doesn't take into account the good work being done by his colleagues. I think that's what Morefield is driving at.

Jeffrey's mission has always been to get his readership excited about experiencing art, particularly film art, and I believe this has been a challenge well and bravely met. It will always be an uphill battle. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, we (cinephiles) will always be in a hopeless minority compared with the millions of people who go to the movies for easy gratification. But that's still no excuse to be smug. Smugness runs counter to the mission. It will not win very many converts.

Edited by Nathaniel, 28 February 2012 - 04:31 PM.


#157 Overstreet

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:37 PM

So I'm not sure what you mean "Was it a new thought?" Was it a story I hadn't heard before? Sure. Does it illustrate or open up things I haven't thought about before? Hmm. I'm not sure that it does. But perhaps I'm missing something.

What about the other questions?


The other questions are similar... they are about theological or political ideas spoken in the film, and I can offer whether I'm excited by those ideas or not. But again, we're not talking about aesthetics anymore. I've already said I'm moved and challenged by the story, by what they characters do and say. But the "how" of the presentation doesn't keep me awake thinking, "Wow, I'm just blown away by the way the director filmed this or shot this or juxtaposed this with this..."

And here's another way to look at it: Most of what we're discussing are ideas that are openly spoken in the film. The dialogue of a film is an important aspect, but it is only one aspect.

If I were teaching a course on excellence in cinema, I would understand teaching Citizen Kane for all of the important breakthroughs and virtuosic cinematography, editing, composition, etc. I would definitely share Of Gods and Men for the purposes of theological discussion and "ministry," but on how many levels of motion picture art is Beauvoix's work really standard-setting?

When it comes to motion pictures, my interests are increasingly caught up in the pictures. They do things that a stage play version or a novel could not.

*

Nathaniel,

If I sounded smug than I have failed.

My point was that there are certain *kinds* of stories that excite audiences... including Christian audiences. I have seen, and suspect that it is usually the case, that stories about heroes will draw bigger audiences, and inspire more sermon illustrations, than stories about saints. That's my primary argument. When you take away the stuff of heroism, you take away the sexy stuff. It's difficult to draw an audience for a story about self-denial.

I did not mean in any way to discredit good critics who have published good reviews in good publications. I was responding to the fact that, in spite of that, I run into references to Of Gods and Men in the Christian communities I know about as often as I run into references of Sophie Scholl. And that makes me sad.

Whew... I'm getting dizzy from trying to recommend the movie to one group, and trying to wade through another group's frustrations at my lack of enthrallment with it.

Now... I have assignments due, including overdue A&F Top 25 blurbs, so I must sign off in order to attend to them.

Edited by Overstreet, 29 February 2012 - 01:06 PM.


#158 M. Leary

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 04:40 PM

If I were teaching a course on excellence in cinema, I would understand teaching Citizen Kane for all of the important breakthroughs and virtuosic cinematography, editing, composition, etc. I would definitely share Of Gods and Men for the purposes of theological discussion and "ministry," but on how many levels is it really standard-setting?

When it comes to motion pictures, my interests are increasingly caught up in the pictures. They do things that a stage play version or a novel could not.


That to me is precisely its odd strength. I am very resistant to message cinema. Heck, I am resistant to cinema that makes sense. But here is a very lo-fi, very blatant, very remedial film about these monks that floored me on the basis of its message. I can think of no film that so neatly captures the intellectual heart of Hauerwas, or Yoder, or Milbank, or any other of the theologians that have shaped my head over the past decade.

Edited by M. Leary, 28 February 2012 - 04:41 PM.


#159 kenmorefield

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 05:02 PM

But I think Morefield's original point is still relevant, and in the spirit of courteous discussion I would concur that there is perhaps a faint whiff of condescension in the references to "Christian circles" and "mainstream evangelicals."

It's all too easy for a movie reviewer to stake out a position of superiority over his/her audience, chastising them for not being as well informed or discriminating as himself/herself. A subtle "guilt trip" rhetoric tends to creep in if one is not vigilant. Now, I don't think there was anything pointedly offensive in Jeff's observation that Of Gods and Men has "gone almost unnoticed in Christian circles," but it wasn't a necessary observation, either. While I suspect it's more or less true (indeed, it smacks of "truthiness"), it is nevertheless unsubstantiated in the article, and it doesn't take into account the good work being done by his colleagues. I think that's what Morefield is driving at.


Hi Nathaniel. Not sure if we've been introduced formally on these boards. Feel free to call me Ken should you care to. (Hmmm...I just heard Monty Python in my head..."There are those who call me....Ken?")

I think your observations are true enough about dangers confronting us as Christians, though condescension has more to do with the tone of rather than the content of writing, and I try not to interject a whole lot about tone since past history has told me that tone, even among friends, can get largely misread.

My issue is not that I think the claim that the film went largely unnoticed or commented in Christian circles was unsubstantiated. It's that I think it was false incorrect. Jeff, to the extent I understand his replies, disagrees and thinks that this generalization is a fair one. Since I doubt we (Jeff and I) disagree as to the meaning of "unnoticed" I can only conclude that we disagree about the meaning of "Christian circles." I think (but am in no way sure) that what Jeff meant by this phrase was "Christians I know--or a subset of Christian culture that I believe myself to be familiar with." I don't dispute that this subset of Christian culture is unenthusiastic about or unaware of the film. I do dispute that this subset represents the sum totality of what an average reader will parse when confronted with the term "Christian circles." I think it was some lazy ineffective writing, and Jeff has said (again, assuming I understand him correctly) that he thinks trying to more narrowly define the group he was characterizing would have been rhetorically cumbersome and implies (or I infer) that many/most of his readers will understand his usage of broader Christian labels better than I apparently did.

But, even this summary paragraph reminds me of the bad ole days of A&F with lots of meta-arguments (arguments about the argument rather than the subject matter of the argument) and word parsing. To channel Steven for a second, I think the things we (Jeff and I) agree about (it's a pretty good movie and it's a shame more Christians haven't seen it or want to see it) outweighs the things we disagree about it (how widespread and universal is the generalization that Christians are uninterested in/unenthusiastic about the film).


Edit: P.S. As regards the film itself, I find this whole poetry/prose discussion a little funny. I know in talking to Steven privately about the film, I offered up as one reason why I did not like OGaM as much as he did is because I'm a narrative/prose guy and the film, with its climactic opera montage was not traditional narrative cinema of the type that I prefer. (Another is that my screening of the film was very, very late because Bruce Springsteen was at TIFF that year and they apparently didn't know he is not easy to usher out of an auditorium just because people are waiting to use it to watch some French film). There are differences between judgments of taste (this is the kind of thing I like) and judgments of quality. Jeff acknowledges as much in his comments/responses, even if (imo) his initial review(s) can appear to me to be conflating the two. But my point about the whole poetry/prose thing is that comparing this film to Malick's ToL makes me feel like the guy in politics who says there really ain't that much difference between the Republicans and the Democrats except at their extreme fringes. It's not like we're talking about Stan Brakhage versus James Cameron here. There's a difference between arguing about how poetic two prose pieces are on the one hand and saying one is prose and one is poetry on the other hand. I guess what I'm saying is that the poetry/prose dichotomy doesn't explain the different tastes it just pushes them to a different level of language/discourse. It's still affective versus descriptive criticism--gauging how the work of art makes me respond (the same way poetry does) rather than saying what it actually does. It is possible to do formalist criticism of poetry (most New Criticism sprouted when poetry was the dominant genre of academic consideration) or personal-response criticism of prose (i.e. talking in emotive terms about how a novel makes you feel). Poetic is a very subjective term. I find the human face inherently visually interesting, and, although I've only seen the film once, over a year and half ago, I was more struck by some of the visual images in the film (such as the monks simple raising of their hands when they are voting--pregnant with meaning and imbuing the image with power rather than trying to make a powerful image) than any single shot in the whole Malick opus put together. I found the anguish on the face of the one monk who was left behind/survived sublimely poetic, by which I mean hard to translate to prose without losing something of its meaning. A good poem=irreducible, can't be summarized, only repeated.

Edited by kenmorefield, 29 February 2012 - 12:08 AM.


#160 SDG

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Posted 28 February 2012 - 05:21 PM

That to me is precisely its odd strength. I am very resistant to message cinema. Heck, I am resistant to cinema that makes sense. But here is a very lo-fi, very blatant, very remedial film about these monks that floored me on the basis of its message. I can think of no film that so neatly captures the intellectual heart of Hauerwas, or Yoder, or Milbank, or any other of the theologians that have shaped my head over the past decade.

And that does so, not in the abstract, in the expression of intellectual ideas, but persuasively embodies those ideas in a lived experience in a context as messy, ambiguous and uncertain as the world we all live in. D'accord. That's what give the film its power for me also.

The other questions are similar... they are about theological or political ideas spoken in the film, and I can offer whether I'm excited by those ideas or not. But again, we're not talking about aesthetics anymore.

Exactly. It's precisely the privileging of aesthetics, and even more the aesthetics of visuals over the aesthetics of narrative, that I resist.

I agree with M. that the "what it's about"/"how it's about it" framework has definite limits -- but if "how it's about it" is reduced to the purely visual, then it's not just limited, but flat-out wrong.

Certainly that's not what Ebert meant by "how it's about it." In Ebert's thought, that phrase denotes not just the visuals, but a film's entire approach, attitude, sensibility toward its subject matter as conveyed in all aspects of the moviemaking process, including dialogue, plot structuring and other aspects of narrative, as well as acting, etc.

But the "how" of the presentation doesn't keep me awake thinking, "Wow, I'm just blown away by the way the director filmed this or shot this or juxtaposed this with this..."

I think this is where I fall back on the reply that if the film did these things it would not be more successful but less. I'm not saying the film couldn't be more successful, including more successful with filming and shooting and juxtaposing. But if it blew us away with these things, it would not be a greater film but a lesser one.

And here's another way to look at it: Most of what we're discussing are ideas that are openly spoken in the film. The dialogue of a film is an important aspect, but it is only one aspect.

Likewise pictures are only one aspect. A crucial aspect, arguably even more crucial than words (since you can have cinema without words, but you can't really have cinema without pictures). But the pictures are not necessarily more important than ideas. Any attempt to exalt the importance of pictures over ideas is going to run into trouble over films from The Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ. There are things bigger than aesthetics, or, if you like, asthetics bigger than the purely artistic.

I called out ideas because they were easy to call out and because I think what a film is about is important (and indeed, as M points out, is not ultimately entirely separate from how it is about it). I could have pointed to the portrayal of the injured terrorist evoking Mantegna, which we've seen before with The Return, but doing it with a terrorist is a further challenge. There's also the wonderful shot of Luc with his head pressed to the side of the Savior on the fresco, a holy image that becomes a new holy image on the screen uniting the Lord and the disciple.

I'm not saying these are "groundbreaking," or that they dazzle me with their challenging newness. I'm saying they make what I believe is true in the abstract real and concrete to me in immediate and challenging ways -- ways unmatched by any film I can think of.

If I were teaching a course on excellence in cinema, I would understand teaching Citizen Kane for all of the important breakthroughs and virtuosic cinematography, editing, composition, etc. I would definitely share Of Gods and Men for the purposes of theological discussion and "ministry," but on how many levels is it really standard-setting?

I agree that in a context such as a course on "excellence in filmmaking," which sets artificial constraints on our sphere of interest in a film, Of Gods may have less to offer than some others. If I think about the film from that artificially limited perspective, it's less interesting to me.

But I am more than a film instructor, and even more than a picture-appreciating being. I am a human being, and a Christian. The film speaks profoundly to me as a human being and a Christian. Partly insofar as I am a picture-appreciating being, but only partly on that level.

When it comes to motion pictures, my interests are increasingly caught up in the pictures. They do things that a stage play version or a novel could not.

Of Gods certainly does things that a stage play or novel can't. I don't quarrel with your verdict that the big-screen presentation doesn't necessarily do anything to which a decent-sized small screen can't do reasonable justice. The same is perforce true of Dekalog. I don't think that automatically consigns a work to lesser status.





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